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Britain’s “Darkest Hour” and National Old Maid’s Day

June! Had to happen eventually, unless the SMOD (Sweet Meteor of Death) caught up to us. Then, you wouldn’t be reading this, either.

But other 4 Junes have seen momentous events. On this date in 781 BC, a lunar eclipse was observed and recorded in China–one of the earliest such an event was recorded. And on this day in 1738, the future King George III was born at Norfolk House on St James Square in London–the first of the Hanover kings to be born in England and the first who never visited the ancestral seat in Germany. On 4 June 1783, the Montgolfier brothers–papermakers in Annonay, France–publicly demonstrated their hot-air balloon in an unmanned flight for the first time; the flight lasted all of ten minutes and rose to an altitude of about 6,000 feet, but created a sensation. In Lyon exactly a year later, Elizabeth Thible, dressed as Minerva, was the first woman to fly in an untethered balloon; her male companion was said to have sung duets with her while aloft. In 1942, on the other side of the world, the battle of Midway began, employing more than a thousand fixed-wing aircraft and not a single balloon. But today we’re talking about Britain’s dark days in 1940, and about spinsters.

This was the last mission of the Sea Fencibles–Britain’s “fishermen’s militia” called to service once more–risked everything to save a desperate army.

There are times in history where choices are made that, in hindsight, are so simple and elegant that it beggars the imagination how anyone could have done anything differently. After a month of fighting the German onslaught across the Low Countries and France, there was not a lot of fight left in the BEF, and it and other trapped Allied troops that could be pulled off had to be pulled out of France to get ready for the next battle–the one for England. On 4 June 1940, the RAF and the Royal Navy ended what was called Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of troops from the coastal ports and beaches that included Dunkirk, the best known. Over 330,000 British Empire soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were hauled off the piers, moles, and beaches of the French ports. But too there were nearly 140,000 French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch fighting men were withdrawn. This was the last mission of the Sea Fencibles–Britain’s “fishermen’s militia” that had been derided by regular sailors for most of their existence. But called to service once more, between 800 and 900 small vessels from a two-meter sailing vessel named Dinky to ferries, merchant ships, Thames yachts, fishing smacks and merchant ships risked everything to save a desperate army.

Ultimately, the fact that the British and their Allies could pull such a combined operation together with a few hours of planning said much about the disparities in Allied vs German combat power. 

What is not often recognized amid the heroism and chaos in those desperate days is that the interregnum that allowed the nine-day operation was a sign of German weakness. While the German Army pressed around the edges, much of the German Army in northern France was out of fuel, having outrun its supplies. While the Luftwaffe attacked the air umbrella and occasionally the desperate operation of the surface, They, too, had come to the limits of their operational range. While several U-boats attacked the streams of ships and boats, the Kriegsmarine had no way of coordinating any other attacking units. Ultimately, while the several German commanders would point fingers at each other for their failure to stop the evacuation, the fact that the British and their Allies could pull such a combined operation together with a few hours of planning said much about the disparities in Allied vs German combat power.

On that same day, Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for a little less than a month, addressed the House of Commons in what has since been called the “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech. Among other notable passages, it included:

…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

After delivering the entire address (about 10 minutes or so), Churchill was heard to also quip “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!

The speech was instantly hailed as historic and has since been referred to as one of the seminal speeches of World War II–if not ever–in English. As desperate as Britain was, with worn-out troops and no equipment, having been run off the Continent in four weeks and everywhere else beset, Britain still had the cheek–or at least a leader with the cheek–to keep fighting.


dianesmile
By definition–unmarried and childless–Miss Keaton is an Old Maid

And then, National Old Maid’s Day. Why you ask.  Well, in 1948 large swathes of American communities had men returning from military service. Many men had lost wives and sweethearts to time and distance, defense workers and earlier returning fellow veterans. “Old maids” started to look pretty good to some returning veterans. as for the most part, these never-married, childless women were stable, often of independent means, and–some–were desperate to spend their lives with male company regardless of personal foibles.

Guests ranged from 75 years old down to an age when hope still flickered

In that year, Marion Richards of Jeffersonville, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia not far from Valley Forge), held the first Old Maid’s Day gathering. According to a June 4, 1982, Asbury Park Press (NJ) article, “Guests ranged from 75 years old down to an age when hope still flickered.” Richards created the day to honor all the contributions Old Maids offer to their communities and their families.

As Miss Keaton says, the traditional spinster pining away her golden years waiting for a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet it a myth.

In Richard’s time, older single women played a major role in many areas of the schools, churches, offices, and families. However, as Miss Keaton had shown, these women can be much more than that. While in my experience I have known very few true “old maids” in part due to my generation’s ideas of marriage, I have been privileged to know several women who were widowed or divorced early in life and who went on to live full and enriching lives. Well-known women who were not technically “old maids” include Katherine Hepburn (who was married in 1928 and divorced in 1934, passing at age 96) and Oprah Winfrey (who had a child at 14 that died shortly after birth). As Miss Keaton says, the traditional spinster pining away her golden years waiting for a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet it a myth.

 

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